Muay Thai (Thai boxing) is the national sport of Thailand that has recently become very popular also outside of Thailand and is now practiced all over the World. Muay Thai is often referred to as the „science of eight limbs“ – this naming convention comes from the use of 2 hands, 2 legs, 2 knees and 2 elbows when fighting.
Muay Thai has a long history that dates back many centuries, probably even more than thousand years – the information gets fuzzy at around 14th century when most of the written documents were destroyed by Burmese.
Did you know that Thailand (land of the free) has actually never in its history been under a foreign ruler? It is believed that Thai soldiers’ fighting ability and good technique played a big part in keeping the land free of invaders.
Muay Thai originates from its ancestor style Muay Boran (“ancient boxing”) which means unarmed fighting. Siamese (Thai) soldiers trained Muay Boran and Krabi Krabong (armed fighting style) to fight Burmese and Cambodian soldiers. Muay Boran is also sometimes used as a term to describe any unarmed Thai fighting style prior to the modernization of rules and forming of „Muay Thai“ in the 1930s.
Muay Boran was a fighting style that focused on kicks and striking which was unique to South-East Asia. Cambodians also fought a similar style and played a big role in the development of Muay Boran.
Different areas of Thailand fought a different style of Muay
Muay Boran can be considered a parent style that held several figting styles under itself. Different Thai regions had quite different muay boran fighting styles:
* Muay Korat in North-East. Focus was on strength. They used a technique called “Throwing Buffalo Punch” – with a goal of killing a buffalo with a single strike.
* Muay Lopburi in the center of Thailand. Focus on moving and dynamics.
* Muay Chaiya in the South. Focus on stance and guard but also knee and elbow strikes.
* Muay Pra Nakorn in the North. Focus on speed, especially the speed of kicks and strikes.
In 1767, when the assembly broke up the ancient Siam, Ayutthaya, the capital of the Burmese troops besieged a group of Thais, and imprisoned them. Among them were many good Muay fighters. Prisoners were taken to a Burmese city called Ungwa. At one point, King Mangra thought that he would like to see how Muay Boran would stack against Burmese martial art Lethwei.
Nai Khanom Tom was selected to compete against the Burmese champion. The boxing ring was directly in front of the king’s throne and Nai Khanom Tom performed a Wai Khru – a pre-fight dance, to pay tribute to the king of Burma, as well as the audience. Dancing around his opponent, he amazed and puzzled all Burmese, as well as his opponent.
When the fight started, Nai Khanom Tom immediately attacked his opponent with strikes using elbows, knees, and all sorts of combinations and pounded until the opponent collapsed. Referee stated that since the Wai Khru strongly confused the fighter he does not count the knockout. After that the king asked Nai Khanom Tom whether he would agree, to prove himself, to fight for 9 other Burmese champions. He agreed and won all the fights one after another, without a rest.
The king Mangra was really impressed, freed Nai Khanom Tom (pictured), and gave him the choice of either a fortune or two beautiful Burmese women as a gift. Nai Khanom Tom chose the women as he said that the treasure is easier to find than women. Today, 17 th of March is celebrated as “International day of Muay Thai”.
Wai Khru is an important part and a tradition of Muay Thai that represent respect for teachers and parents but also is the time the fighters pray for their victory and security. In the old days, people believed in Siamese amulets. Before joining the ring, they had an obligation to make a spiritual ritual through which they asked permission from spirits. Wai Khru is not only spiritual but also a practical ritual – it works as a warmup and gives the fighter some time alone to gather thoughts for the upcoming fight.
Even today, before stepping into the ring, the fighter must resign certain rituals. In this regard, there are no specific rules, all fighters perform their Wai Khru ritual as they see fit. Some knee before stepping into the ring, others do the Wai Khru dance, some walk 3 rounds around the ring holding ropes. Fighter will bow in all four directions when entering the ring to pay respect for spectators.
Then the fighter will go to the corner, where the special headband (Mongkol) is removed by the teacher.
Muay becomes popular outside of the army
After a while Muay Boran also became popular amongst regular citizens who started to practise this army fighting style as a sport and public fights would be held. The fights became a popular entertainment activity, even so that fights were held in the temples to entertain the King himself and his court.
Muay Boran reached its golden era in entire Thailand when King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) came to the throne. Muay developed through the entire time Rama V ruled. It was peaceful at that time in Thailand and Muay Boran was mostly practised as a self-defense, psychological exercise and for personal achievement and fulfillment.
New set of rules and term „Muay Thai“ is first introduced
After the death of a fighter in Muay Thai ring, King Rama VII set down rules for Muay fighting. The rules stated (amongst others things) that it is mandatory to wear gloves and woollen shin guards at fights.
During this era the term Muay Thai was introduced and it became the name to govern this new style of regulated fighting while the older style remained Muay Boran.
Learn more about the rich culture of Muay Thai.